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InternetTech

The Future of Social Media

Just over 20 years ago, TheFacebook was launched in a college dorm room as a student directory to help people connect and share information at Harvard University. The term ‘social media’ hadn’t quite caught on but there were various social networking services around such as Myspace, Friendster, Hi5 and Orkut. It was clear that these sites had tapped into something, perhaps the desire to connect in a way the internet hadn’t yet provided.

Word spread quickly and users flooded onto these sites, giving them the opportunity to meet new people and to reconnect with those they hadn’t spoken to for years. By the mid 2000s, the social networking craze was in full swing, a phenomenon that would eventually change the very nature of the internet.

Some people felt social networking was a fad that would soon be replaced by the next flavour of the month. 20 years later, while there’s certainly been an evolution of social sites and apps, we’re still waiting for that next flavour. Today, there are 5.17 billion social media users worldwide, with Facebook, YouTube, TikTok/Douyin, Instagram and WhatsApp being the most popular platforms.

Social media has opened up a new world of opportunities. With billions of users, these platforms have been ideal spaces from which to leverage the enormous growth of digital advertising. A plethora of businesses have cropped up to help people who want to gain followers and subscribers. And the term ‘influencer’ is something few would’ve related to back in the 1990s. So, you’re telling me you get paid to take photos of yourself?

There’s considerable appeal to the idea that one can change their life overnight by posting the right video or taking the right photo. For many, social media is a place of hope, where one only needs a mobile phone and an internet connection to take one’s trajectory in a direction they themselves would never have expected. It’s for this reason that millions of people use social media as both consumers and creators, despite the understanding that being a content creator isn’t easy as it seems and many influencers experience burnout.

But along the way, social media has revealed a dark side to human interaction. It’s opened up a side of us that we didn’t know existed, or a side that we hoped we could keep hidden away. Social media is notoriously toxic, with flame wars, cyberbullying and hate being an almost inevitable aspect of large online communities. Even Stack Overflow, a Q&A platform for computer developers, is seen as hostile and unwelcoming!

But perhaps this is the price we have to pay for the cold, hard truth. The discussions that take place on social media may not be reflected in the mainstream. In fact, Western mainstream media (MSM) is increasingly being referred to as ‘legacy media’ because it has failed to keep up with the shifting landscape. Trust in MSM is very low and many people feel it exists to push propaganda rather than to report on the truth. A perfect case in point is the genocide in Gaza, the horrors of which are being played out every day on social media. MSM remains conspicuously silent when another atrocity by Israel occurs or its coverage is overtly biased. One can’t help but notice the very clear overwhelming pro-Palestine consensus on social media and the lamentable attempts by MSM to downplay Israel’s crimes.

Social media is not only affecting the fabric of the internet, but also the cultural fabric of society; so much so that various economic commentators are dubbing the era we’re in as the era of technocapitalism. Tech companies have so much power that they’re usurping the power of the state. With the change of an algorithm or a shift in advertising policy, the result of an election can be manipulated. And government officials are being bought off, allowing for tech companies to accrue more and more power. According to OpenSecrets, Meta spent a whopping $19 million in 2023 lobbying US government officials.

It also doesn’t help that many policymakers are technologically illiterate. Back in 2018 when Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress, Senator Orrin Hatch asked, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” The Zuck replied with a smirk, “Senator, we run ads”. Adding to the humorous exchange is that Senator Hatch was the Chair of the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force.

Mark Zuckerberg telling Senator Orrin Hatch that Facebook runs ads.
Senator, we run ads 🙂

Many people aren’t comfortable with social media companies having this much power, and thus efforts are being made to dilute it. Not just through regulation and fines, but through the launching of competitor services such as Mastodon and PeerTube. These are social media platforms that operate on the Fediverse. The Fediverse is a network of decentralised social media platforms that can communicate with each other. The benefit that’s particularly attractive is that there’s no single point of control. Unlike centralized platforms where a single entity such as Meta or X controls the entire network, the Fediverse consists of multiple independent servers (instances) that interact with each other.

Fediverse platforms still have a way to go to catch up with established social media platforms, and so regulation is likely the method of choice with which their power will be curtailed. There’s increasing talk of TikTok bans and similar endeavours, however as long as special interest and lobbying are placed into the equation, the path is unlikely to be straightforward.

With social media having such a far reaching impact and being used by over 5 billion people, there are bound to be a long list of positives and negatives. Talk has been underway about web 3.0 for several years, with the metaverse at one point being seen as the next evolution of the internet. However the hype around the metaverse has died down considerably. Other platforms such as X seem to be going through chaotic times. But as of this writing, 67.1 percent of the global population has access to the internet. There is a huge segment of the population still without connectivity, and once access becomes more widespread, social media will need to adapt to ensure it’s able to meet the needs of both those who’ve used their services for 20+ years and those who are brand new to it. Competing forces suggest there could be a move towards AI and machine learning, alongside a thrust towards augmented reality and virtual reality, which would require funding from billion-dollar companies. However niche communities may appeal more to those who want to be free from the grip of Big Tech and prefer closer connections with like-minded people. The future of social media, it seems, is one of greater consolidated power or greater independence.

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